Since the ideal way to see “Cloverfield” is to know as little about it as possible, let me say right off the bat that the movie is exciting, terrifying and breathlessly entertaining. You should go see it and then come back to read the rest of this review, which contains a lot of spoilers.
Back now? Good.
While the advance hype about “Cloverfield’s” handheld-camera monster-movie shtick made it sound like it was going to be “The Godzilla Witch Project,” the resultant film very cleverly transcends its gimmick.
The story is simple — a group of twentysomething New Yorkers gathers for a going-away party, only to have it interrupted by a mysterious earthquake and power outage. As the evening wears on, they realize that a giant monster is rampaging its way through Manhattan, and the audience sees everything happen through the lens of a video camera being operated by one of the partygoers.
All the film’s “editing” is done within the camera, but since the tape being used at the party originally had month-old footage of the guest of honor and the girl he loves, we get occasional “flashbacks” interspersed whenever the camera operator stops the tape. This approach brilliantly places the film in the here and now, adopting the “shoot it all and let YouTube sort it out” aesthetic so prevalent today.
While the handheld cinematography may be disorienting to some — if “Blair Witch Project” made you nauseated, bring your Dramamine — it makes the movie even scarier by making it nearly impossible to get a really good look at the creature. (The makers of the dreadful American “Godzilla” tried hiding their beastie in the fog, which wasn’t nearly as effective.)
And rather than feeling like a “Blair Witch” knock-off, “Cloverfield” brings to mind such disparate projects as “84 Charlie MoPic” (a 1989 indie set in Vietnam, where the entire film is seen from the POV of a combat cameraman), “Special Bulletin” (the acclaimed 1983 TV movie that conveyed the story of a nuclear incident entirely through a fictional network’s news coverage), and “Marvels” (a graphic novel that shows the adventures of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and other superheroes as seen by a news photographer). And while some audiences may still not be ready to see New York get destroyed on film, “Cloverfield” winds up being a more effective 9/11 metaphor than, say, the queasily exploitive “United 93” was as a 9/11 docudrama.
Writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves (ostensibly with the help of producer J.J. Abrams) have placed some interesting spins on the monster movie here. For one thing, our protagonists aren’t dedicated scientists or heroic military men — they’re just young people dealing with jobs, relationships and, suddenly, not being killed. The monster itself forms a kind of two-pronged attack: There’s the huge, building-crushing thing, yes, but it’s accompanied by spidery little drones that provide the humans with terrifying, mano-a-mano “Aliens”-style battles.
Japan may still have it on us when it comes to electronics and fuel-efficient cars, but it looks like the United States is finally, more than 50 years after “Gojira,” catching up in the monster-movie department.